“It’s just hair.” In discussions of the cultural appropriation of Black hairstyles or the need for hair diversity in the media, this seems to be the most common response given by those privileged enough to be unaware of and unaffected by the nuance of how American society treats different hair types (Colleen). Racism is often considered to be bigotry against phenotypic traits that cannot be changed, such as skin color or the shape of certain facial features. This understanding of racism, however, does not account for the long history of hair discrimination—unfair treatment due to one’s hair—that people of color have had to face in the United States (“Natural Hair Discrimination”). The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund calls hair discrimination “racism by another name” because it targets those whose hair does not fit Eurocentric ideas of professionalism and beauty (“Natural Hair Discrimination”). For all those who believe that at the heart of these issues it is “just hair,” I hope this essay can explain the long and nuanced history of hair discrimination in the United States, from which discussions of natural hair cannot be separated, and the ways we can end it.
While many communities of color who do not naturally conform to Eurocentric beauty standards have been affected by hair discrimination, it has historically targeted African Americans. Hair discrimination in the United States can be traced back to slavery in the 1600s (Byrd and Tharps). Africans first arriving in the American colonies were forced to shave their heads, which dehumanized them by removing their statuses, cultures, and identities (Byrd and Tharps). Women working within the home were forced to straighten their hair to look more like white people’s, meanwhile those working outdoors in plantations wore head wraps to hide their “wooly hair” (Byrd and Tharps).
After emancipation, African Americans were forced to maintain a proximity to whiteness as a means of economic survival and advancement under capitalism (Edwards and Cummings). This was especially true for Black women, who felt greater pressure of adhering to beauty standards in general. For instance, in one hair advertisement from the early 1900s, a famous hair brand owned by Black millionaire Madame C. J. Walker claims that achieving “pleasing hair,” as in straight hair, would get other Black women ahead in society the way it did for Walker (Edwards and Cummings). Additionally, many Black women subsequently felt that they needed to straighten their hair in order to be more successful at work (Edwards and Cummings).
This same discrimination persists today, pressuring Black people, especially Black women, into conforming to white beauty ideals in order to be successful. These pressures are placed onto Black children from a young age, with many schools throughout the US implicitly or explicitly banning natural Black hair and culturally Black hairstyles in their dress codes (Samuels). Black students are told that the way their hair naturally grows out of their head is too “distracting,” which is what happened to twelve-year-old Vanessa VanDyke, who faced expulsion at her school in Orlando, Florida for not straightening her hair (“Girl Says Florida School”). In another instance, a Black student athlete from Buena Vista, New Jersey was forced to cut off his dreadlocks at a wrestling match in front of the crowd and cameras or forfeit the game. According to the white referee, the dreadlocks were not permitted because they did not conform to the rule book (Stubbs). Workplace dress codes have similar restrictions on what hair is considered appropriate. A study conducted in 2019 found that Black women were 1.5 times more likely than white women to be sent home because of their hair, and 80 percent of Black women felt that they had to change their hair from its natural state for work (“Her Crown and Glory”).
Hair discrimination is a pretext for racism, enforcing the same negative stereotypes onto people of color, especially African Americans, under the guise of professionalism. This works through the association of negative racial stereotypes about Black people with Black hairstyles. For instance, large, curly hair is considered messy and unprofessional (Samuels). Afros, in particular, are also considered militant due to their association with armed Black civil rights organizations of the ’60s and ’70s, along with stereotypes of Black people being violent and criminals (Edwards and Cummings). Moreover, those who wear Black protective hairstyles face certain other stereotypes as well. In 2020, a nineteen-year-old Black employee of a Banana Republic in White Plains, New York was told to take out her box braids because they were “too urban” for the store’s image (Dirshe). When celebrity Zendaya Coleman wore dreadlocks as part of her formal attire to a red carpet event, television personality Giuliana Rancic assumed that she must have smelt of weed (Uwumarogie). Dreadlocks have a strong stereotypical association with being dirty; in Alabama, there was a 2013 court case of a woman, Chastity Jones, whose job offer was rescinded after she refused to remove her dreadlocks. The hiring manager had told her, “They tend to get messy, although I’m not saying yours are, but you know what I’m talking about” (Hrynkiw).
These stereotypes are further enforced by hair discrimination in beauty salons. In cosmetology schools, the curriculum requires hairstyling students to spend 1,600 hours studying hair, but only five of those hours are spent on curly or kinky hair (Valenti). Even then, curls are taught as difficult to manage and a problem that needs to be fixed through relaxers (Italie). Consequently, stylists working at hair salons have very little knowledge of natural hair. Earlier this year, one TikTok creator proved the severity of this problem by calling twenty-three hair salons in her hometown, asking if they could work with Black hair, to which not a single one answered yes (“In Case Anyone Needed a Reminder”). Natural hair is effectively being excluded from beauty so that it is nothing more than a problem and the stereotypes that it carries.
Despite its evident racism against people of color, hair discrimination continues today because it is not legally viewed as racial discrimination. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits any employment discrimination based on race (“Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964”). While it does not ever say that racial discrimination targets immutable traits, that is how many courts have been interpreting it (Gutierrez-Morfin). In Chastity Jones’s case, she argued that dreadlocks are a “racial characteristic” used to stereotype African Americans as unprofessional (Gutierrez-Morfin). However, the Alabama district court ultimately dismissed her case because the dreadlocks were not an immutable trait and therefore cannot have been racism (Gutierrez-Morfin). Furthermore, the cultural significance of protective hairstyles has gone under question, further legally justifying the prevalence of hair discrimination (“The Unnatural Treatment”). In the 1981 case Rogers v. American Airlines, in which Renee Rogers was told she could not wear cornrows to work, the court ruled that even if racism were to encompass mutable traits, cornrows were not a significant part of her heritage, for many white women have been wearing cornrows since actress Bo Derek famously wore them in the movie 10 (“The Unnatural Treatment”). Clearly, when non-Black Americans wear culturally Black hairstyles, they perpetuate their image as a trend rather than the important part of their culture that it is.
In order to stop hair discrimination, it must gain legal recognition on a national scale. In 2019, California became the first state to do so, passing the CROWN Act (“Natural Hair Discrimination”). Standing for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair, it prohibits race-based hair discrimination in professional and academic settings (“Natural Hair Discrimination”). No one can be denied employment or educational opportunities for their natural hair texture or for wearing protective styles like dreadlocks and cornrows (“Natural Hair Discrimination”). Twelve states have since followed California, implementing their own CROWN Acts or similar legislation, but more must be done to criminalize hair discrimination on a national level to protect the millions of people of color who live in states that have yet to make progress (“Natural Hair Discrimination”).
While legislation is an important step to ending hair discrimination, it is also necessary to normalize non-Eurocentric hair in American society. The CROWN Act and similar laws only criminalize explicit hair discrimination, but there exist other forms of bias against natural hair that these laws cannot protect against. For instance, one study found that Black women were twice as likely as white women to feel “social pressures” to straighten their hair for work (Bates). This includes coworkers or bosses touching their hair, telling them they look more “put together” with straight hair, or other unwarranted microaggressive comments (“Microaggressions Against Natural Hair”). Unfortunately, yet unsurprisingly, the stigmatization of natural hair also persists within communities of color, who have internalized the negative perceptions of their natural hair as dirty or unprofessional (Chapman). With pressures to chemically straighten their hair starting at school, African Americans and people of color with similarly curly hair are led to believe their hair is not acceptable the way it is (Chapman). In the African American community exists a dichotomy between “good hair,” which is long and straight, and “bad hair,” which is “short … and wooly” (Chapman). Similarly, curly hair in Dominican culture is referred to as “pelo malo,” “bad hair” in Spanish, and in my own Egyptian community, my curly hair was considered “mankoush,” an Arabic word for “messy and rough“ (Dale). With anti-natural hair sentiments perpetuated in both predominantly white spaces and within their own communities, people of color can seemingly never escape the prejudices that pressure them to hide their hair.
Consequently, the only way to destigmatize curly hair in professional settings is for people to simply wear their natural hair more both in and out of work. I remember when I first started wearing my hair naturally at age sixteen, I asked a teacher at my high school if I had to straighten it for my business competitions. While there was no rule prohibiting big hair, I was advised to do so to avoid making a bad impression on the judges. I hid my curls for the competition but told myself I would let it down if I saw at least one other person of the hundreds of competitors wearing their big, curly hair, which I never did. Natural hair for many people of color is such a socially charged issue that it is often difficult to comfortably and shamelessly wear it out. Every day, I unintentionally make a political statement by wearing my natural hair, aware of the biases that exist against it.
However, there has been a rapid rise of natural curls, with Black-owned hair businesses sales increasing to $2.1 billion of the $77 billion hair care industry in 2021 (Martinbrough). Seeing more people choosing to let their natural hair be, I feel a shared sense of solidarity that encourages me to keep on going when it sometimes feels easier to straighten it again. As more people of color continue to let out their curls, make and share hair maintenance tips online, and call for reform in cosmetology school curriculums, the nuance of wearing natural hair will eventually disappear. While non-Eurocentric hair may not be “just hair” yet, continuing to wear it the way we want is slowly normalizing it to become so one day.
It can be quite difficult to imagine that something as seemingly small and insignificant as hair can be such a harmful tool for racism. Nonetheless, hair discrimination holds an evident role as a subtle pretext for racism, which must be recognized and condemned both legally and socially. Discussions surrounding non-Eurocentric hair in American society should always include hair discrimination, for it always exists in this charged context. Ultimately, as we work to create a socially equitable world, it is clear that bigotry does not always manifest in the most easily identifiable ways, yet can still be very destructive. Any and all forms of discrimination play a role in the injustice that prevails today, but no matter how subtle, by recognizing and paying attention to them, they can be put to an end.
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About the Author
Heba Elsetouhi is a freshman at Fordham College at Rose Hill. She is majoring in Economics with a minor in Arabic and plans to go to law school. Heba hopes to one day combine her passion for social justice and advocacy that inspired her essay with her career.